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The value of immigrants

DO YOU WANT to rile up a crowd? Talk about immigration.

Ian Bowles, who heads the nonpartisan think tank MassINC, was on the radio yesterday morning to discuss the findings of a new study about Massachusetts. It shows that the share of immigrants in the workforce nearly doubled from 9 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2004. Without immigrants, Massachusetts would be losing population.

Afterward, radio host and former congressman Peter Blute briefly praised immigrants who understand the work ethic and ''American values." Then Blute focused on the downside: illegal immigrants who are ''costing us money," ''spreading disease and crime." That counts as mild, even thoughtful, commentary in a country which now boasts an armed citizen group determined to stop Mexicans from illegally crossing the border into the United States. Today, suspicion and hostility are likely to greet the variety of immigrant famously embraced by poet Emma Lazarus and engraved on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands -- the ''huddled masses yearning to be free," the ''wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, explain some of the anger, which now threatens to overpower reasonable voices, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. During an interview on NBC's ''Meet the Press," McCain called immigration reform ''a compelling issue of the day. We are making American employers engage in illegal activity the way the system is today. It's broken. It's got to be fixed . . . " He and Senator Edward M. Kennedy are co-sponsoring legislation providing for a temporary visa that allows foreign workers to perform a job initially for three years, with a possible extension after that period.

''The extremes" -- as McCain described those who want amnesty and those who want to shut down the borders -- dislike the proposal. But as he pointed out, ''As long as there's a demand for workers, workers are going to try to get into the United States of America."

Today, 907,000 Bay State residents, one in seven, were born in another country. The study, undertaken by MassINC and the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, estimates the Bay State's undocumented immigrant population to be ''somewhere between 100,000 and 175,000 people." Based on past evidence, undocumented immigrants are ''likely young, with limited education and limited English-speaking skills." That makes their ability to access jobs, educational, health, and workforce development services limited as well. ''These are no longer only issues for the border states to be concerned with," the study notes.

A recent front page story told the dramatic story of a Massachusetts high school valedictorian, who is an undocumented immigrant. The student, Juliano Foleiss, is returning to Brazil because he cannot afford college in the United States. As a noncitizen, he does not qualify for in-state college tuition rates, and without a valid Social Security number, he is ineligible for scholarships or loans. The state Legislature is reconsidering a bill that would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates.

The authors argue that, overall, the influx of immigrants is important to the Bay State's economic health. ''Immigrants are a godsend to our economy and we should look at it that way," said Bowles. Without them, the state's population would be in decline, a trend attributed in part to the high cost of living here. ''If we don't have a robust and dynamic workforce, that caps our state's economic potential. Period," said Bowles.

Yet there is a concurrent need for increased education and training programs to help immigrants realize their potential and contribute to the state's economy. Growing numbers of immigrants to Massachusetts, including those here legally, have limited English-speaking skills; and the study draws a direct correlation between the ability to speak English and the ability to be hired for the best-paying jobs. That reflects the larger tension between citizen and immigrant, as the citizen-taxpayer foots the bill for services the immigrant requires -- and worries the immigrant is taking the better jobs, at the citizen's expense.

To Bowles, welcoming newcomers and helping them assimilate is part of the American tradition. ''People have come here forever" to better themselves, he argues. Those who resent it ''miss how much we need the immigrant population."

This nation of immigrants often forgets its roots. Wave by wave, generation by generation, resentment runs deep.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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